Invisible labor: Not just housework anymore

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Media headlines of late are challenging our presumptions about what is invisible labor.

Amazon, for instance, announced the opening of a store that eliminates the frontline job of cashiers – as well as the checkout lane and all the self-checkout machines. Instead, this work will be done through the automatic scanning of consumer movements around the store and on the shelves. Live employment will be diverted to locations behind the scenes, in labors of preparing and stocking the food.

Likewise, in my home state of Missouri, a waitress at Hooters was fired for failing to do the work of looking right on the job. That labor involved wearing a wig (bought at her own expense) to cover scar on her head after returning from brain surgery, and thus upholding gendered and sexualized appearance rules at work.

Even acts of resistance on the job are telling, like when an African-American employee broke a stained-glass window in the Yale dining hall where he washed dishes. Outraged by a scene depicting slaves picking cotton, he was no longer willing to do the work of idly supporting in a discriminatory organizational environment.

Automation, aesthetic labor, and racial tasks are examples of contemporary ways that the workplace is disempowering workers and submerging the types of tasks they are expected to do. This is the starting point of a new book I co-edited with two legal scholars, Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry.

With a forward by eminent sociologist Arlie Hochschild, our book draws together 20 authors in 14 chapters from a variety of disciplines to explore what we see as a shifting of landscape of invisibility.

Traditionally, invisible labor has been viewed through the context of unpaid labor within the household and voluntary public service work. Sociologist Arlene Daniels used the term to point out how women are often associated with kinds of labor that are widespread throughout society, but not conceived as work and not remunerated.

With this book, we wanted to explore how invisibility now infiltrates the paid workforce as well, and moreover, crosses a range of pay scales and diverse social classes.

We propose an alternative definition of invisible labor: activities that workers perform in response to requirements (either implicit or explicit) from employers – that are crucial to generate income, to obtain or retain their jobs, and to fur­ther their careers – yet are often overlooked, ignored, and/or devalued by employers, consumers, workers, and ultimately the legal system.

We pay particular attention to the changing subcurrents of employment in the 21st century: consumerism, branding, technology, and globalization. We also broaden the traditional focus on gender to highlight disability, race, class, and nation.

Our authors urge people to think about the sociological, historical, and legal foundations of what counts as work. For example, management scholar John Budd lays out some of the costs of invisibility, and makes a case for moving past conventional notions of work that only narrowly recognize labor and in turn under-remunerate it.

Sociologists Adia Harvey Wingfield and Renée Skeete provide a much needed critique of invisible labor from the perspective of race. Their concept of racial tasks identifies the wide range of activities that employees of color must often do to support institutions of white privilege, in order to fit in at work.

Some workers are virtually invisible. Managers are erasing, transforming, or digitizing the worker’s body through the aid of technology and transnational outsourcing. Legal scholar Miriam Cherry illuminates the hidden labor of crowdsourcing workers for Amazon Mechanical Turk, avatar employees in Second Life, and online gamers who may not even realize they are doing work for corporations as they play.

In my chapter I consider how the human frontdesk receptionist is being replaced with a range of digital and global alternatives – from software-generated avatars on flatscreen monitors and full-size holographic images, to video-streamed secretaries in Pakistan and virtual teams of live but invisible workers in India.

Other kinds of workers are pushed out of sight, spatially, geographically, temporally. Legal scholar Elizabeth Pendo focuses on persons with disabilities who are segregrated into state-sponsored “sheltered workshops.” Doing routine manufacturing work for less than minimum wage (in some cases), they remain outside the formal labor process altogether.

Sociologist Evan Stewart sheds light on Latino and Asian farmworkers. They are erased racially from television and Youtube advertisements for US fruit products, and replaced with images of white workers or dancing oranges.

Opposite to the previous cases are employees who feel pressure to look good at work. Especially in industries that are interactive with consumers, employers may emphasize and encourage aesthetic qualities as the primary function of the job. This involves acting a certain way, displaying a particular habitus, adopting a way of speaking, etc. These workers may even be hyper-visible. What is hidden, however, is neither the worker nor her work, but the labor that occurs behind the scenes and the employer policies that incentivize it.

Legal scholar Dianne Avery explores these issues in the context of the “breastaurant” industry (like Hooters), which requires its food servers to conform their bodies to the company image. Sociologist Chris Warhurst considers dynamics in the UK, where employers in hospitality and call center industries emphasize vocal aspects of aesthetic labor. They often search for workers who “sound right” for the job, in way that privileges class-based accents.

Important also in the current era is how workers are branded and consumed. Sociologist Adam Arvidsson and colleagues describe recent pressures for self-branding among knowledge workers. Against a backdrop of intense competition for jobs and an increasingly precarious standing, these employees must construct themselves as entrepreneurial subjects responsible for their own market success.

Ultimately, we argue that broadening the category of invisible labor matters for several reasons.

First, work that is not seen is not valued, either symbolically or materially. Many of the tasks that we discuss in the book as invisible labor – emotional labor, conforming behavior to the “ideal worker,” erasing one’s ethnicity, race, or gender – would not count in the quantified workplace where output is key.

Second, if workers themselves do not see their efforts as valuable work, they are less likely to organize, appeal for public support, or challenge their working conditions through the legal system. Even if they want to mobilize, the invisibility of their work—and in many cases, of the workers themselves—may make it difficult for them to gain political traction or support from consumers.

Finally, and most crucially, if the state and legal systems do not acknowledge the labor, it will not be addressed in policy and law.

Winifred R. Poster teaches at Washington University, St. Louis. Here new book with Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry, Invisible Labor (University of California Press), is out now.

Photo via Glynnis Koike, iStock/LL28

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